There’s power in them thar hills.
With snowpack back to normal, a surplus of river-generated electricity is now being predicted for the region, according to estimates released Wednesday by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
During summer’s peak runoff, the surplus for the entire Columbia River Basin could be as much as 8,000 average megawatts, which is enough juice to power six cities the size of Seattle, according to the council’s report.
“We have a whole lot more megawatts than we’re going to have demand for,” said John Harrison, spokesman for the intergovernmental agency that studies regional power needs.
Don’t expect a price drop, however. Power companies say they are still recovering from massive debts accumulated from having to buy power from other sources during recent years of drought.
“We won’t see a change of rates,” said Hugh Imhof, spokesman for Avista Utilities.
Prices might not drop, but snow in the mountains is a good indication that utilities won’t have to buy power from the open market, Harrison said. About 40 percent of the Northwest’s power supply comes from rivers. During dry years, power companies are often at the mercy of volatile markets. “This allows us to breathe easier,” Harrison said of the normal snowpack.
The Northwest River Forecast Center predicts that runoff for the Columbia River basin between January and July will be 107 million acre feet at The Dalles Dam in Oregon. That’s 100 percent of normal.
Most mountains in the Idaho Panhandle and Eastern Washington have between 90 and 110 percent of their usual seasonal snowpack, according to measurements taken by remote monitoring stations operated by the federal government. Some places are much deeper than normal, including Schweitzer Basin, near Sandpoint.
Schweitzer is covered with 172 inches of snow, which is deep enough to bury NBA player Shaquille O’Neal, even if he was standing tippy toes on the shoulders of Michael Jordan. If the snow were melted, it would be the equivalent of 5 feet of pure water.
Although part of the projected power surplus is due to a healthy snowpack, the situation is also caused by continuing weak demand, Harrison said. “Our demand for power has never really come back since the energy crisis of 2000-2001. We’re still at 1989 levels.”
The amount of water forecast to go down the Columbia River is nearly twice the amount of 2001, which was one of the driest years on record and also one of the costliest years ever for electricity.
Imhof, with Avista Utilities, called the surplus power declaration “gutsy,” and said it’s too early to make final snowpack predictions. “We usually don’t make any forecasts until April. That’s when the snowpack peaks,” he said.
Last year at this time, the region had less than half its usual snowpack. The top of Mount Spokane was practically dry. The situation prompted dire predictions of drought, wildfire and dry rivers. Instead, there was an abundance of rain.
“We’re very happy we’ve got it, but we aren’t there yet,” Imhof said.
Apart from power generation, snowpack is critical for keeping the Inland Northwest hydrated during dry summer months, said John Tracy, director of the University of Idaho’s Water Resources Research Institute. It provides more water for crops, a protective fire blanket for mountain forests, a cool living space for trout and bigger rapids for kayakers. Snowpack also serves as a critical source for replenishing aquifers.
“Having year after year of drought really puts a lot of pressure on the whole system,” Tracy said. “This year it looks like we’re over that.”